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Mobile TV – coming soon to a mobile phone near you

3rd April , 2006

Europe UK : If you’ve been tracking what’s likely to be coming soon on advanced mobiles in the future, you’ll probably have read about receiving digital TV transmissions on your cellular phone. The media bandwagon started in earnest last summer when a number of cellular carriers around Europe announced they were staging pilot tests of the technology behind mobile TV.

We asked Jez Paulson, manager for AlanDick’s Broadcast Group, for his views on what is happening in the fast-moving world of mobile TV…

Mobile TV is starting to capture the public imagination, mainly thanks to innovative trials by O2 in Oxford, England, and Orange’s operations in France and the UK, but the pros and cons of the different transmission technologies involved – DVB-H, DAB and 3G video streaming – are now starting to become apparent.

Research released by the Institute of Information Technology Advancement during February, however, concludes that DVB-H – which has the backing of BT, O2, Telefonica Moviles and Nokia, as well as a number of other carriers and vendors – is fast becoming the mainstream standard in Europe’s nascent mobile TV marketplace.

To those mobile phone users who have held a DVB-H compliant handset in the palm of their hand, and seen the clarity of the transmissions, this will come as no surprise.

DVB-H is an interesting hybrid communications medium. Whilst a DVB-H compliant handset continues to rely on its CDMA, GSM, 3G or similar cellular network for voice, SMS and mobile Internet surfing, DVB-H allows the phone to receive its streamed TV `signals’ from an entirely separate broadcast network.

This overlay approach to DVB-H is the key to its success to date, as it means the cellular networks do not have to invest in upgrading their own network - they can rely on one or more third parties to roll out their own series of DVB-H transmitters.

The technology behind DVB-H is enormously flexible, allowing, for example, the use of higher power DVB-H transmissions from fewer transmitters than are used for standard cellular signals. In addition, the technology is sufficiently flexible to allow for regional and even single city coverage, rather than requiring an investment in a national network.

The real beauty of DVB-H, however, is that consumers are already used to carrying around a portable TV receiver in their pockets or purses - most of today’s mobile phones already have a colour screen, so all that is needed is the inclusion of DVB-H receiver circuitry. For most people in Europe, the concept of viewing stable TV pictures on their mobile is a useful addition to the growing list of features for their pocket smartphone.

Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general, undoubtedly had one eye on DVB-H technology when he announced plans for the new MyBBCPlayer online service in the summer of 2005.

Although the BBC’s plans are still at an early stage, the idea is to offer rolling seven day historical access to all of the BBC televisual and audio channels via the Internet, as well as historical archives of the most popular programs.

Plans call for the MyBBCPlayer service to be launched some time later this year and, whilst it remains to be seen whether a charge for the facility will be introduced, the crucial factor is that the BBC has the rights to tens of millions of hours of its own programming.

But what about the technology behind DVB-H? Where is the industry so far in terms of standards?

Quite some way forward it seems, as the DVB-S2 standard - which was ratified by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) last year - is designed as a replacement for the DVB-S standard, now a decade old, that is used in most digital satellite TV systems. Unlike DVB-S, DVB-S2 was designed from the ground up to eliminate signal synchronisation problems in marginal reception conditions. The new standard also allows for better usage of the available bandwidth.

In addition to its improved performance and spectrum efficiency, the new standard supports an adaptive coding and modulation (ACM) transmission scheme that allows capacity to be optimised for individual - or groups of - receivers. Under this feature, receivers report their forward link signal-to-noise ratio back to the transmitter, which can then adjust the modulation and forward error correction parameters to suit. According to some sources, this ACM scheme can effectively double the available bandwidth on a typical signal, when compared to DVB-S.

Although DVB-S2 is aimed initially at digital satellite TV applications, there can be little doubt that the technology can also be used to extract the last few lines from a cluster of DVB-H TV signal transmissions.

O2’s trials of DVB-H technology in Oxford, England, have been well received and widely reported, but there are several other DVB-H projects in progress across Europe, such as in Paris, where Canal Plus has announced plans to offer as many as 20 TV channels via DVB-H to mobile phone users on the Paris Metro.

Given that the Paris Metro was one of the first subways in the world to offer GSM phone signals to users in stations and tunnels, this prospect has the French broadcast world buzzing. Metro travellers represent a truly captive audience.

Spain’s Telefonica Moviles has been working along similar lines with its football-oriented mobile TV trial, which started last September in Madrid and Barcelona, and culminated in a positive technology report at 3GSM, held in Barcelona in February of this year.

In the Telecofonica Moviles trial, it is notable that the carrier secured the rights to Champions League football, something that made the service highly appealing to soccer-mad cellular users in Spain.

From a broadcast perspective, DVB-H offers the industry a win-win situation as far as the technology is concerned. As can be seen from the above examples, carriers are developing DVB-H -compliant services that are just one part of a complete new range of facilities.

Coupled with the fact that a DVB-H chipset can be included in a mobile phone for just a few dollars at the factory, we think that even the accountants will be smiling at the rapid potential return on investment the technology offers the industry.

Our conclusion here at AlanDick, where we have been closely tracking the convergence between broadcast and cellular that DVB-H engenders, is that while DVB-H may have its critics, it is without doubt a new transmission technology that has the potential to open up massive new entertainment markets. The system can even be used to propagate TV transmissions to areas where conventional broadcasts would not be economically viable.

Thanks to its decades of experience in both broadcast and cellular communications, AlanDick is unique in its understanding of the significant differences between planning and transmission intricacies in these two industries - and is extraordinarily well placed to offer a one-stop supply approach for both broadcast and cellular operators aiming to profit from this fledgling new industry.

DVB-H technology is, therefore, a very positive step for the broadcast industry. It offers a win-win scenario for everyone, be they content providers, broadcasters, cellular carriers or simply end users of this new technology.